Blogging from Alternative Spring Break in Alaska

March 19, 2010
By Chris Richter

NC State student Elissa Trotman walks with a child from the Head Start program in Hoonah, Alaska. (Photograph by Susannah Brinkley)

NC State student Elissa Trotman walks with a child from the Head Start program in Hoonah, Alaska. (Photograph by Susannah Brinkley)

NC State magazine intern Susannah Brinkley, a junior in the College of Design, is blogging for us from her Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trip to Hoonah, Alaska. ASB provides students a chance to take a vacation and complete service projects with other students. In Hoonah, Susannah’s team is working in local schools, with the Head Start and Boys & Girls Club programs, and with the Senior Center and the Hoonah Indian Association. They’re also learning about the Tlingit Indians’ culture, customs and language. You can see Susannah’s photos here and read the blogs of her teammates and other NC State students on ASB here.

Service work in Hoonah is full of surprises. When I told people I was doing a service trip in Alaska, they’d ask why. I’d say, “To work in the schools.” They would nod, but they didn’t seem to understand. It’s interesting to see the trip finally come to fruition.

Monday, we received our assignments for the week. I began at Head Start, the pre-K program. There are about 15 kids between the ages of three and five. Most of them are Tlingit, and they are all adorable. We’ve been told many of them come from unstable homes.

After a morning of Play-Doh, books and music, I headed over to the senior center with a few other students. Most of the seniors are Tlingit tribe elders. They’re gruff, but with a little effort, they’re easy to talk to. Some like to spend their time working jigsaw puzzles. My teammates and I socialized with them, then served lunch and talked more. The stories they tell are fascinating. One man of the Eagle Clan told me to ask a member of the Raven clan about how the sun came into the sky. I asked him why he couldn’t tell me, and he explained that Eagles cannot tell Ravens’ stories, and vice versa. He also said that Eagles and Ravens coexist well, and that Ravens may only marry Eagles because many people within clans are related.After we left the Senior Center, another student and I visited the high school’s creative writing class. The creative writing teacher also teaches English, Spanish, anthropology and study hall. There are 35 kids in the high school, and 103 in the entire school (K through 12). The kids don’t seem too focused or disciplined, and the teacher mentioned that they are a couple months behind! It’s definitely a different educational environment than the one I grew up in.

Tuesday was similar. The kids at Head Start remembered and welcomed us with hugs, as did the elders at the senior center. I returned to the high school to help screen print with the economics class. Apparently the school received a grant to begin a T-shirt screen printing business to help kids in the art and athletics classes learn about business practices and ethics.

In the afternoon, we worked with the Boys and Girls Club making bean bags for the school’s annual fundraising carnival. Our group was asked to manage the bean bag toss booth to raise money for the wrestling team. A lot of the kids find their niche with athletics (basketball is the most popular). That gives them the opportunity to travel outside of Hoonah. Practically the entire town came to play games, eat dinner and support the school. It was more fun than we’d expected.

When we got back to the bunkhouse we reflected on our day with laughter and tears. Everyone is bonding with the community, though it’s been challenging to be here as outsiders.

Wednesday was shorter. Head Start was much the same — more songs, blocks and Play-Doh — and the senior center was more lunch and puzzles.

After lunch, we headed to Icy Strait Point, where a ranger from the U.S. Forest Service took us on a hike through the Tongass National Forest. He explained the importance of maintaining forests, showing us the two types of trees in the forest: hemlock and Sitka spruce. The trees are so tall! We felt tiny amidst them.

In the evening, we went back to the senior center for a class in Tlingit language. Like others of her generation, Genevieve, an elder, was punished as a child for speaking Tlingit in school. English was the standard, but Genevieve persisted in practicing her language while many of her classmates forgot it. Now, Genevieve teaches classes to the Elders and others of the community. Tlingit pronunciation is difficult, but sounds pleasant. I’d like to study it.

We’re halfway finished and starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s not really a light, though, because the group has reached a consensus: We’d like to stay at least another week. It’s hard to make a difference in such little time.

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